Transcendent Benefits of High-Risk Sports

Richard L. Celsi, California State University, Long Beach
[ to cite ]:
Richard L. Celsi (1992) ,"Transcendent Benefits of High-Risk Sports", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 636-641.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 636-641

TRANSCENDENT BENEFITS OF HIGH-RISK SPORTS

Richard L. Celsi, California State University, Long Beach

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of participants in high-risk leisure activities such as mountain and rock climbing, SCUBA, skydiving, extreme skiing, white water rafting, and aviation sports (Lyng and Snow 1986). Not only are more people experiencing these activities, but their demographics include a widening age range and a growing number of female participants (Celsi, Rose, and Leigh 1991). Further, through increased media coverage and word-of-mouth, vicarious consumer participation also flourishes, as scenes of parachutists, hang gliders, and white water rafters capture our imagination.

For instance, recall recent TV ads, including a parachutist on a slalom ski skimming over the top of a body of water with the voiceover "life is short, play hard," or skydivers on surfboards free falling for a Coca Cola, or the countless images of both male and female extreme skiers, mountain cyclists, and rock climbers. These scenes are breathtaking, as each image captures and reflects a growing fascination with the excitement of high-risk sports. The attraction is visceral and the message clear: "experience the thrill and live life to the fullest." But beyond experimentation and thrill, what is it about playing on the edge that attracts and sustains the interest of those few who continue and become veterans of these sports? What additional benefits sustain their continued participation? That is, beyond thrill, what motivates experienced participants to continue to risk their lives?

The objective of this paper is to briefly examine benefits that are realized by many individuals through prolonged participation in and consumption of high-risk sports. My intention is not to present a comprehensive review of benefits and outcomes that accompany and motivate participation in high-risk sports, but rather to focus on a specific set of abstract benefits that appear to be common to experienced participants across many high-risk sports. Thus, the interpretations presented in this paper are not intended to encompass the entire high-risk experience, but only those experiences that I will refer to as "transcendent." These are (1) self realization and the flow experience, (2) communitas, and (3) self-change. I classify this set of outcomes as transcendent because they are commonly described by participants as having properties capable of altering one's perceptions in terms of self, context, and others. Moreover, participants' descriptions of these experiences are often accompanied by expressions of wonder and bemusement, often associated with profound experience.

METHODS

The data for this paper are gained primarily from three high-risk sports: (1) mountain climbing, (2) BASE jumping, and (3) skydiving (see Celsi et al. 1991 for an ethnography of skydiving). Mountain climbing refers to the skills and experiences associated with negotiating a mountain with the goal of summiting. Skydiving refers mainly to free fall parachute jumps from an aircraft. BASE jumping is the use of a parachute to jump from a fixed object such as a Building, Antenna, Span (bridge), or Earth (cliff). All three activities are risky. In combination, approximately 100 Americans die each year while participating in these three sports (Society of Actuaries 1982).

The conclusions and inferences drawn in this paper are based on participant observation, interview data, and secondary data sources in all three high-risk sports except BASE jumping which is based on non-participant observation. Direct experience includes over 650 free fall skydives and mountain climbs to altitudes of 19,000'. In addition, over 70 hours of in-depth interviews with participants in these activities have been conducted and analyzed. This experience and data has been collected during the past five years at over 20 sites in the United States, Europe, and Mexico.

Data collection and analysis procedures were emergent and interative and based on prolonged engagement (Kvale 1983; Wallendorf and Belk 1989). Multiple methods, multiple sites and contexts, as well as member checks, were used to ensure triangulation and credibility (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Werner and Schoepfle 1987).

TRANSCENDENT EXPERIENCE

Mountain climbing, BASE jumping, and skydiving are similar in that participants willingly risk injury or death to experience their sport's benefits. Each requires the development of specific physical skills along with the ability to handle specialized equipment. For example, skydivers and BASE jumpers must manage parachutes and develop aerial skills, while climbers learn to use ice axes and crampons, and to hone their balance. Yet, each physical context is descriptively different. A BASE jump from a 50 story building is a blur that lasts just seconds, and is reduced largely to a series of survival actions in the face of extreme and immediate conditions. In contrast, the context of climbing a mountain is drawn out over days or weeks and encompasses many levels of risk and conditions. Skydiving, although of relatively short duration when compared to mountain climbing, occurs over a much longer time frame than BASE jumping. Skydiving typically includes a minute of free fall (or skydiving) before the participant must take survival action and activate his or her parachute which then takes about four or five minutes to land.

However, when participants describe the more abstract qualities of these activities, they use a common language. For example, BASE jumpers, skydivers, and mountain climbers all reflect on camaraderie, timelessness, involvement, and a sense of freedom as benefits of their respective sports. My description and interpretation of transcendent experience is based on these abstract commonalties that are reported and observed across all three of the high-risk sports that are examined.

Specifically, I use the term transcendent to describe those person/context interactions that are experienced by the individual as producing either altered temporal experience (e.g., a sense of timelessness), special understanding (camaraderie), or personal change that is considered to be profound by the participant. These commonalties are most evident when these individuals describe (a) their involvement with the context in which their high-risk sport occurs, (b) the sense of community and special communication that they feel, and (c) the sense that they are changed by engaging in the activity. These themes are described in the following sections as (1) the flow experience, (2) communitas, and (3) felt self-change.

The Flow Experience

When BASE jumpers, skydivers, and mountain climbers discuss the primary activities of their sports, for instance, the actual act of "making a bridge jump," of being in free fall, or traversing a glacier, they speak in terms of the absolute involvement that is demanded, as well as the sense of release, timelessness, and freedom that coincides with those peak experiences. For example, a BASE jumper describes the total commitment of a leap from a 55 story building.

After reaching the top, you had to step up onto a ledge. My knees felt weak and, I think, were shaking. I needed a hand to step up there... But when I jumped into the darkness, all of that left me. I was perfectly calm and clear. There is no sense of time, other than you know you don't have much of it, but it almost seems as if everything is in slow motion, if you have any sense of it at all. But it's only when I look back on it that it seems that way. At the time I was completely engrossed in what I was doing (BASE jumper, wm 44, Los Angeles, California, 5/91).

A similar state of involvement while mountain climbing is recorded in the following field note excerpt.

At 13,000' I encountered a 75¦ cornice. It wasn't that big a deal, I mean it didn't overhang and it was only about a 15' wall. However, it was at the top of a glacier that averaged 50¦ and was 2000' vertical feet and I was solo... I had been more conscious of time than usual as I felt it necessary to clear this drainage before the summer sun softened the snow, and the sun was now 20' to my left. However, when I turned into the cornice and front-pointed over it (with crampons and ice axe) everything was reduced to the feel of the snow on my hand. I don't remember the sun hitting me until I was up, but it must have. There was no time, no consciousness, no effort that I recall, everything in retrospect seemed reduced to that tactile memory. The sun then became a reward (field notes, Mt. Shasta, California, 7/91).

A skydiver describes this involvement as a sense of freedom experienced while falling two miles through vertical space:

Freefall is a ...free feeling. It's one time in my life when I think of nothing else. I mean, there's nothing on my mind. There's nothing I'm thinking about other than what I'm experiencing. Everything else is totally out of my mind and I am free. There is nothing to hold me down, to hold me back. There's just nothing there... (wf 27, 100 jumps, South Carolina, 1989).

Csikszentimihalyi (1974, p. 58) describes person/context interactions such as these as "flow" experiences. He defines flow as a

state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next in which we are in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future.

Csikszentimihalyi and Csikszentimihalyi (1988) believe that flow signifies the emergence of an individual's true self, which is free of self-limitation and self-awareness. As such, flow is a fluid state that seems atemporal, where one moment flows into the next as personal action and situational demands synchronize and become one. Self-consciousness, as evaluator and commentator, is replaced by a seemingly less obtrusive awareness that is typically recalled only after the flow experience has ended. This state of personal freedom is reflected in the above verbatims, in which the depth of involvement in the activity is described as overriding the participant's self-awareness. Thus, flow represents a release from conscious constraints, such as self-doubt and socially imposed limitations, and therefore results in at least a temporary realization of an unencumbered self.

For flow to occur, situational demands must generally approximate the coping abilities of the participant, thus allowing for a potential state of absolute involvement. That is, a context must exist in which the individual is neither "underwhelmed" or overwhelmed by the situation's demand characteristics, as the former is boring, and the latter quickly becomes terrifying. Neither produce flow.

Mitchell (1983, p. 154) states that ideal conditions for flow exist when an individual is both free to enter a situation and has autonomy over his or her behavior once engaged. Similarly, Goffman (1967, p. 185), referring to such a context as "action," says that it must allow for creative freedom and be sought out and embraced solely as an end in itself. Writing about heightened experience, Caillois (1961) adds that this context must also allow for fantasy in terms of imagined outcomes and scripts, and produce a sense of vertigo, or altered consciousness that accompany the purposefully sought uncertainties encountered in activities such as skiing, skydiving, and mountaineering... (in Mitchell 1983, p. 154).

High-risk sports are and remain attractive to individuals because they meet these criteria. They (1) are freely engaged as an end in themselves, (2) present a context that tests abilities, and (3) provide the potential for imaginative and heightened experience. Moreover, high-risk sports provide these opportunities to virtually all participants because these activities are not absolute in their risk and degrees of difficulty, and thus can be engaged by individuals in a manner that approximates their respective skill levels. For example, a twenty-one year old with relatively little experience expresses this benefit when describing a rock climb.

This [climb] was only about 20', but it was Denali to me [Mt. McKinley], I was so in to it...! (field notes, 9/90; Joshua Tree National Monument, California).

Thus, in high-risk sports the stimulus field can be intentionally delimited (Mitchell 1983). For instance, routes up mountains can be chosen that challenge individual abilities, skydives can be planned to match the skill levels of the divers, and BASE jumps can be made from various altitudes and stances. In this manner, high-risk sports offer an infinite variety of contexts that provide flow opportunities and possible transcendent rewards to all participants who choose to interact with the context. Because of such rewards, individuals are motivated to return often to the risk context in order to "re-create" or "replicate" the experience (Csikszentimihalyi 1975).

Scott, who retired from BASE jumping after suffering a serious injury in a near fatal BASE jump, and whose retirement was reinforced by marriage, says with increasing frequency that he can feel the urge to BASE jump again. "It's something that will never leave me." He began skydiving again six months after his accident (Conversation, Long Beach, California, 4/91)

Communitas

Whereas flow, as described above, is experienced at the individual level, another form of transcendence occurs at the communal level in the form of shared experience. Turner (1977) defines this social bonding as communitas. Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989, p. 8) believe that communitas is a kind of "shared flow." They state that flow and communitas are not distinguished "so much in the nature of the experience [but] in whether it is a group or individual phenomenon." Clearly, the flow experience is a key aspect of communitas, but to view communitas as "shared flow" is limiting. Communitas is a function and sense of shared experience, stemming as much from the shared boredom of a sleepless night at altitude or the grief shared at a friend's funeral, as from the highs of flow and camaraderie. Often communitas may be experienced as a feeling of flow, but just as often it is a conscious sense of "team," common language, and shared responsibility. As such, communitas is inclusive of, but not limited to, feelings of shared flow (see Celsi et al. 1991). BASE jumpers, climbers, and skydivers reflect this group involvement which stems from common experience.

...when we are out here climbing on these rocks, nothing else matters to us, not school, work, or anything... All of that is gone. All there is is the climbing, the sun, and the people I want to be with... Everybody I know feels the same way... (wm 27, Joshua Tree National Monument, California, 9/90).

It's almost like a family out here [at the parachute center]. There is a certain kind of camaraderie among skydivers that you just don't get anywhere else (wm 40, 1100 jumps, skydiving photographer, South Carolina, 1989).

Communitas, as interpreted by Belk et al. (1989, p. 7), "is a social antistructure that frees participants from their social roles and status and instead engages them in a transcending camaraderie of status equality" (also see Turner 1977). High-risk participants often talk of the common bond that they have with one another and the suspension of everyday social order. This status equality, which is pervasive in high risk sports, is described by two skydivers:

The sport has a special kind of camaraderie [so] that it doesn't matter what kind of background [you come from], in any category, be it religious, educational, or whatever... there is still a common bond that exists and draws people together (wf 34, 1600 jumps, Chester, South Carolina, 1989).

...jumpers have a special kind of bond... you have your doctors, professors, lawyers, but you also have your truck drivers, brick layers, and masons. Out here on weekends, none of that is a factor. What people do and how much money they make just doesn't play any part (wm 25, 325 jumps, Charlotte, North Carolina, 5/88).

This type of social leveling and bonding is most likely to occur when an individual is in a liminal state "between two statuses such that may occur on a religions pilgrimage," or, in other words, among layman when they seek acceptance into a subculture (Belk et al. 1989, p. 8; also see Turner and Turner 1978). In the following field note, this "pilgrimage quality" is observed in passing by a solo climber. Here, many groups of individuals, who are essentially inexperienced "mountain climbers" (or in a sense liminal members of this high-risk sport) have embarked on a "once in a lifetime" climb. In the process, they are observed to be transformed and bonded by the experience.

I had camped at about 7500' near the trail head of the "normal" route up the mountain. As it was summer, there was an enormous number of "climbers" of various abilities and experience who were going to attempt this standard route up the mountain. I was amazed at how many there were. Most were clearly here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some had hiked the switch-back trails of Mt. Whitney and thus felt they were up to this mountain because of its comparable altitude. All expectations were high, as climbers camped on the side of this Volcano that rose an additional 7000' in only 4.1 miles. The mountain was still snow and ice covered, but the standard route, this time of year, was little more than a walk-up to someone experienced with altitude, crampons and ice axe. I would climb a different, somewhat steeper route, but for the first 2000' the next morning, I shared the same route with this column of over 100 climbers, who looked as if they were laying siege to the mountain as they snaked up its side! For four hours I passed many of these climbers, and in a strange Chauceresque way collected many of their "stories" in exchange for mine. To some this mountain was a life-long ambition, to others an uncertain experience. However, all were under the spell of the mountain and shared a look of intentness that made an impression on me. It was clearly religious. All differences seemed dwarfed by the mountain, which had become some kind of shared Grail. However, perhaps because I planned to climb a different route, I felt more an observer than member. At 11000' I climbed solo, and in stark contrast, saw and heard no one until I traversed the top of a west facing glacier at about 13,500' and gradually rejoined the normal route near the summit plateau. Only a handful of the climbers had made it this far. One, who was the only person out of five in his group who summited (and whom I had seen earlier), said with a quiet excitement that it had not been at all like he had expected. It was so much more. It had been a pilgrimage, he said. He laughed a kind of half laugh to himself looking past me, and said again, with that same half laugh, that it had been a pilgrimage -- nothing else could describe it... (field notes, Mt. Shasta, California, 7/91)

In contrast, the pilgrimage quality of communitas may not be as overt with experienced climbers, BASE jumpers, and skydivers, as these participants often are more process, as opposed to "Grail" or outcome orientated. Nevertheless, the sense of communitas remains strong and unifying, as this experienced BASE jumper and skydiver indicates:

...these people are my brothers. I trust them with my life all the time... they do what I do and know essentially what I know... (wm 24, Zepherhills, Florida, 3/89).

This shared understanding and experience often translates into a common language that is also a central aspect of communitas. That is, a combination of common experience and specialized technical vocabulary, which is little understood by outsiders, ties together the cultural community, thus reinforcing the uniqueness of the group (Celsi et al. 1991). For example, climbing and skydiving terms, such as "rappeling" (a way of descending with the aid of rope), and free fall, are only understood at all levels of meaning by participants who share the experience of these terms beyond their linguistic translation.

This inability to translate non-common experience is expressed by one skydiver:

Well, first of all, I can't really go on and explain to somebody who has never jumped, OK? That's one thing that if you've never done something, you can't really share it with someone else (wm 22, 300 jumps, Columbia, South Carolina, 1990)

Malinowski (1923) refers to this cabalistic aspect of a shared language, which transcends direct translation, as phatic communion. As such, phatic communion is a special set of verbal and non-verbal cues, which are well-understood by insiders, and allows them to both create and communicate their special world view. Thus, language which describes shared experience becomes, in itself, a central aspect of communitas as it gives cohesion and a sense of pride to the subculture.

This sense of language, group membership, and pride is reflected in the words of a young hang-gliding enthusiast.

It's like a different language, like French; I love it when my brother can't understand what I'm talking about... (Brannigan and Mcdougall 1983, p. 45).

In sum, communitas is a special sense of community that emanates from shared and often unique experiences. It is manifest at the levels of camaraderie and language, and like flow, often transcends ordinary experience.

Felt Self-Change

Feelings of self-change and personal growth are also rewards of peak experience, as most mountain climbers, skydivers, and BASE jumpers feel that they have been changed, often in profound ways, by their respective sports. This personal change is manifest at many levels and essentially evolves relative to the individual's experience level. Initially, for example, feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy accompany the success of high-risk undertakings, as this young woman who had just completed her first parachute jump announced.

I've done it. And it's nothing anybody can ever take away from me... (overheard conversation at a skydiving meet in Lidkoping, Sweden, 5/89).

Then, as experience is gained, most, who go on to push the limits of their context and ability, also feel that their overall lives have been changed in significant ways. To these individuals, who have experienced communitas and the intensity of flow, and who have most likely confronted death or injury in some form, feelings of increased confidence and self-respect are accompanied often by changes in perspective and world view.

...it has changed me, as far as, you know, [pause] ...I've been doing it for so long now, it almost seems like a way of life (skydiver, wm 25, 1400 jumps, Columbia, South Carolina, 1988).

However, in addition to, and highly related to the personal growth described above, is an actual experience of self-change, a feeling that sometimes follows profound peak experience. It is an experience of self-change that is palpable and phenomenologically felt, as if the change that occurs incrementally in ordinary life were temporally compressed resulting in an acute self-awareness of differences between old and new self. This feeling is expressed in the following field note recorded in the days immediately following a mountain climb.

...it's powerful, like the sensation of experiencing someone else's body and mind, only you know it's you, but the novelty of the feeling is real and tangible. It's like having many years of life's experience compressed into a short period... like the feeling of falling asleep a 12 year old and waking up 16. It's a very special kind of high, because not only have you changed, but you can directly experience and feel the change. You can look through new eyes and experience for a short while the prosaic in your life as novel (field notes, El Popocatepetl -- 17,887', Mexico, 12/90).

This feeling of self-change is experienced as a "high," but not as an adrenalin or excitement high, but rather more like the infinitely intensified feeling of wearing a new suit of clothes. Like flow, the feeling is transcendent in that perceptions are somehow altered, but unlike flow, it is a state that is self-consciously experienced and immediately available to introspection. In fact, it is the intensified self-awareness of the change in itself that seems to provide, or is the high.

This feeling is like being "allowed" to experience the transition from one self to another, like overtly observing a deep-seated psychological process (field notes, Mount San Antonio, California, 11/90).

This feeling can be described, internally, as the sensation of experiencing a new or changed self, and externally, as perceiving life, including the mundane, as new and meaningful. An analogy may be found in Dostoyevsky's (1866) "Crime and Punishment," wherein the protagonist and murderer, Raskolnikov, is finally caught and is being taken away for life to prison. Conveying the abrupt and fully perceived change that this brings to Raskolnikov's life, Dostoyevsky focuses on Raskolnikov's perception of a street sign. Raskolnikov, who has passed this street sign every day of his life, thinks how profoundly strange and uniquely different the sign now appears to him in its complete detail as he passes by it on the way to prison. He thinks not only that the sign's meaning has changed for him, but that his very perceptions of the sign's physical characteristics and context have been altered. Clearly, Raskolnikov's life has changed for the worse, but the analogy of altered perception following sudden and intense perceived self-change is highly applicable.

Similarly, journalist Claudia Dowling (1991) reflects on the positive nature of this self-change after her unsuccessful Mount Everest attempt. She also notes the ephemeral nature of the feeling.

And yet -- I have climbed a bit of Everest... And the world seems great and magnificent that it could have such a mountain in it. "It changes you," English [who also had climbed Everest with Dowling] had told me. "It make you a better person. But it [the feeling] only lasts about two weeks. That's why you keep going back" (p. 56).

The experiential quality of self-change does seem to diminish in a few weeks as English says. Yet, it's not likely that the self-change is temporary, but rather that the change is assimilated and the contrast is no longer felt. One is clearly left with the feeling of permanent and positive change, and the desire to experience this unique high again. As English had told Dowling, "it changes you for the better" (p. 56).

The ephemeral and addictive quality of the high is expressed by a skydiver.

...the skydiving, it just calls you back every time... it was my love and lust (wm 34, 1038 jumps, Chester, South Carolina, 1989)

In theory, felt self-change in high-risk sports appears to be a function of the entire high-risk experience punctuated by flow, or more likely, a series of flow episodes such as typically occurs, for example, on a mountain climb. In this sense, flow, as a peak experience of absolute involvement, acts as a crucible where the manifestation of extant self is tempered through a process of repeated actualization. This process likely forges personal change that is felt later when the absolute involvement of flow gives way to self-awareness and the contrast between old self and new self is phenomenologically experienced. Thus, felt self-change is likely, in part, an outcome of flow, with flow a crucible that forges change through total involvement. As such, felt self-change and flow are separate but related experiences. Flow is the experience of absolute involvement, marked by the absence of self-consciousness, while felt self-change is an acute and transcendent experience of self-awareness.

CONCLUSION

High-risk sports offer extensive benefits, most of which are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is experiences such as flow, communitas, and self-change which are gained from intimate interaction with these activities that provide individuals with a sense of transcendence, personal identity, and on-going motivation. In sum, while qualities such as thrill and excitement are always desired and enjoyed, it is the ability of high-risk sports to produce both individual and shared transcendent experience that elevates them most of all to the realm of the "sacred" (cf. Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989).

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